It happened last Sunday evening, just as I was letting the dog out for her final wander round the garden before bed. Like many other people, I’d been waiting for it for a number of weeks, and then it arrived. As I felt the gentle drops of rain on my skin, I breathed in deeply and savoured that most distinctive scent of the rain as it fell on the dry ground.
There’s a word for that earthy scent; petrichor. It’s thought to be constructed from the Ancient Greek words petra (rock), and ikhor which according to Greek mythology, represents the golden fluid that flows in the veins of the immortal. As the gentle rain continued to fall for a while, it softened the ground just enough for the ensuing overnight deluge to sink deeper, and really water the ground.
As I woke the next morning and went out to the farm, I was struck by how little evidence of the heavy rain from the night before remained. It had largely soaked into the soil, bringing a freshness and vibrancy almost immediately to grass and crops, some of which had been beginning to struggle on lighter ground. Now I’m aware that some of you had to endure one almighty deluge with thunder and lightning, flash floods and water running straight off rock-hard ground (more of that later), but it seems that here in the Borders, we were treated to just the right amount of rain, at just the right time, which soaked into the ground and did some lasting good.
So, here we go with what might be one of the most bizarre metaphors I’ve ever come up with, but I sense that God wants us to be more of a Petrichor People. I’m not saying we should all become raving pluviophiles (Google it!), but I’ve been struck this week by the image of God’s people through their interaction with others, gently watering souls and leaving the fragrance of Jesus in their wake, as the Spirit of God leads and directs. Like light refreshing rain showers which are so difficult to forecast and predict, are we not called to be a people on the move, a people of pilgrimage? A people less constrained by strategies, five-year plans and institutional dictates, and more able to gently water the hard ground of our communities, with refreshing showers of prayer and love for our neighbour.
Yet, so often it seems to me our missional endeavours can appear more akin to a thunderstorm, than gentle refreshing rain showers. We roll out another programme of high energy, volunteer sapping activity, and our endeavours are like torrential showers of rain running straight off the hard, dry ground, causing flash floods and unable to water even the most receptive of souls. Indeed, to use another metaphor, spreading too much salt can ruin even the tastiest of banquet. Interestingly, during very heavy rain the scent of petrichor disappears as the speed and strength of the raindrops represses the creation of the scent. Also, geosmin, the compound that causes the scent, is noticeable to people at extremely low levels. Apparently, our noses can detect just a few parts of geosmin per trillion air molecules. Maybe practically helping out a neighbour, or enjoying a conversation with a friend around the meal table, might be the most important thing we can do.
Recently it’s been our sense that in these days of liminality we’d do better to gently water the dry ground of our communities with prayer and loving service as we watch and wait for the Spirit, than default to the latest round of activity just so we can look busy, or continue what we’ve done for the last number of years. Psalm 72:6 asks that the king’s rule might be ‘refreshing, like spring rain on freshly cut grass, like the showers that water the earth’. Maybe that’s what a Petrichor People ought to look like; bringing refreshment not fatigue, sharing God’s love organically, not organisationally and leaving something of the sweet scent of Jesus as we interact with others in our different contexts.
So, be encouraged, what can appear our seemingly minuscule acts of lovegiven as offerings of gentle, light rain to water the souls of others, may well be having far more impact than we could ever imagine.
Alistair Birkett Pastoral Director, North of England and Scotland